A dialogue on the challenges of publishing and selling Palestinian books brings out the day-to-day travails of a lone Arabic bookstore in East Jerusalem
New Delhi: As a panelist at a discussion earlier this month on the challenges of publishing and selling Palestinian writings in and outside Palestine, an effervescent Mahmoud Muna evoked mirth among the audience on many occasions.
Muna and his brothers run Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem, the part of the city controlled by Israel. Their bookshop is the only one there that sells books on and from Palestine in both English and Arabic. Started by his father about three decades ago, the bookstore has now grown into “a family business,” housed in a three-storey mansion – one for books, one for film screenings and one a café.
But Muna told those present at the discussion, part of a three-day Palestine in India: A Writer’s Colloquium, “Profit is not what we can afford to think of. Rather, we have to think how to be creative and not get the bookstore closed down.”
Much to the amusement of the audience, he went on to give examples of his “creativity,” one of which concerned an event organised by the bookshop in 2012 on British writer Sarah Irving’s biography of Leila Khaled, the icon of the Palestinian liberation movement.
“When Sarah came to Palestine with her book, we decided to organise an event at our bookstore as she spoke about the series of plane hijacking (1969-70), an important part of the liberation movement. Since Leila is a persona non grata in Israel (she is also reportedly the first woman to hijack a plane), we thought of reading out a message from her to the audience. But Leila refused to give any written message, saying she wanted to speak to Palestinian people and didn’t want us to take away that right from her. And that’s when we needed to be creative. We approached the French Consulate in East Jerusalem to host the event. To our surprise, they agreed. Perhaps the then French ambassador didn’t know who Leila was and allowed her to speak to a 350-strong audience on Skype at the Consulate,” he said with a grin, as the crowd laughed.
But the laughter soon subsided when Muna related another incident that took place just four days before he travelled to India.
“Right outside our store, the Israeli army shot dead an Arab man. Soon the army came inside the store asking us to close it for three days, which is the norm. The CCTV camera of the store caught the entire episode and they wanted to confiscate the footage. We called our lawyer and a compromise was reached where all the CCTV footage was collected plus the mobile data of all the customers were deleted and we didn’t need to close our shop for three days. They left after two hours. But with such incidents happening right in the middle of the city, our long time customers do feel nervous about coming to the bookstore at times.”
Almost all the books that the Educational Bookshop sells are imported. “There is not much local publishing in Palestine. Anyway, there is a saying about Arab literature that Egypt writes, Lebanon publishes and the rest of the Arab world reads it,” said Muna. But a major problem for the store is that the Arab literature produced in Lebanon and Iran are not allowed in Israel. “This is particularly unfortunate since Beirut publishes the most Arabic books. So many titles are smuggled in,” he added.
Although no government censorship on English books – unlike Arabic and Hebrew – means the bookshop can import English titles from across the world, it does not always go smoothly. “For instance, there was this book called Hamas: A History from Within. Since every consignment, whether it comes by sea or air, is opened for checking as per the censorship regulations, the title posed a problem for us. We had to hire an Israeli lawyer who insisted that the authorities give it in writing that the book has been banned in Israel. After a month, the government released the consignment,” Muna told the audience.
Being a business entity under the financial system of the Israeli government, the bookstore has to follow its taxation system. “Since we pay a lot of taxes on the books we import, we don’t have the ease of returning the unsold copies to the publishers. So we have to study each title carefully and decide how many copies to ask for,” he pointed out at the discussion.
Although the café at the bookshop sees a good number of tourists visit to taste its Palestinian dishes, he does not think of them as potential customers for the books. “Because of strict regulations at the airport, tourists don’t want to buy all titles,” he said by way of explanation. The family makes “some money from the café” but Muna said he runs his family by teaching at a local college. “The bookstore is more of a mission.”
Although a ready readership is available as Palestinians are keen on education, pricing the books to attract readers is always a delicate balancing act for Muna and his brothers.
“Typically, we price an Arabic book between $7-10, otherwise we will end up catering to only the Arab elites. But certain challenges arise specifically to our bookstore because we are in Israel. For instance, Bloomsbury produces Arabic books from Qatar, which we can’t directly import to our store in Israel. So Bloomsbury sends them to London from where they come to us. This increases the pricing of the books,” he explained.
But the pricing of an English title has to begin at $14-15. “This happens even after we get 30-35% discount from the publishers. After paying all the taxes, we still end up selling an English title at the original price of the book which is quite high for our readers,” he told The Wire.
At the discussion, one of Muna’s regular patrons of Palestinian books, well-known publisher Michel Mousebeck of Interlink USA, also recounted the challenges of publishing Palestinian books, particularly in the US.
“You might think I started from zero in the US some 30 years ago but I would say I began at minus 50 because an average American has no idea about Arab literature. Often my sales people face the question from booksellers, whether these are Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaida or ISIS literature in translation,” Mousebeck said.
Since Interlink translates a wide gamut of Arabic books into English, Mousebeck said, “Another challenge is, there is no editorial culture in the Arab world. So before handing out a book to a translator, we have to first edit the Arabic book which is an expensive procedure. So throughout, we work very closely not just with the translator but with the author too.”
Then there is an economic challenge. “It is not a level playing field. Since we are an independent publishing house and take no translation grant from anywhere, we find it particularly difficult to bring our authors to our readers even if we are more passionate about our books. Our authors are always far away from our readers in America but we can’t have author tours, etc. to publicise a book.”
There, he rued the apathy of the Arab countries in promotion of its arts and literature, “Look at Germany. After the World War II, its government set up Goethe Institutes in different world cities because it realised these institutes will help create a good image for Germany in the world. These institutes now take care of German artistes and authors’ international tours and publicity. Nothing of this kind is there for Arab literature. Just recently, the French government bought an expensive three-storey building opposite the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan to turn it into a bookshop of French literature. The Arab nations have money only for F16s.”
Besides Muna and Mosenbeck, Sudhanva Deshpande of New Delhi-based Leftword Books was also part of the discussion. Deshpande, a well-known theatre personality associated with Jana Natya Manch, which brought the famed Freedom Theatre from Palestine last year to tour eleven Indian cities, underlined why his publishing house decided to bring out books like From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity (2014) and Namaste Sharon (2003).
“These books seemed a natural thing to do. Because while we were growing up, say in the 1980s, Palestinian writings, particularly poetry, were widely available in India. Poets like Mahmoud Darwish were widely translated into Hindi and other Indian languages. But it is only in the last few years that we have seen a decline in the trend,” he related.
Ritu Menon, the event organiser and publisher of the feminist press Women Unlimited, which regularly supplies books to Muna’s bookstore, said, “I look at publishing Palestinian books in India as a development activity. Unfortunately, the challenge we are now facing is that we (India) are becoming a terribly Anglo-centric society and our media is not interested in the books we produce. It doesn’t review the books, doesn’t talk about their authors.”